By Greg Sukiennik , Manchester Journal
MANCHESTER — One of the most eagerly anticipated races of the 2020 state election starts in earnest Tuesday with the Democratic primary for the Bennington-4 district in the Vermont House of Representatives.
On the Democratic ballot are former state Rep. Seth Bongartz, who recently retired as president of Hildene, the Lincoln Family Home; first-time candidate Jamie Dufour, a Manchester business owner; and incumbent state Rep. Kathleen James, who is seeking a second two-year term. The district includes Arlington, Manchester, Sandgate and part of Sunderland.
Two of those candidates will move forward to the Nov. 3 general election, where they will face state Rep. Cynthia Browning, D-Arlington, who has chosen to run as an independent this year. Two will be elected to the House.
The seeds for that change — and the makeup of the primary ballot — were planted in March, when Browning’s decision to force a quorum call on an in-person vote clearing the way for remote voting in the House met with sharp criticism.
Supporters said Browning had the right to stand her ground on procedure, and criticized House leadership for removing Browning from the House Ways and Means Committee in what they saw as a reprisal. But detractors said Browning had needlessly forced legislators to make a mad dash for the Statehouse to meet quorum, and put those who did at risk for exposure to COVID-19.
That set the stage for Bongartz, who served as a state representative for four years (1981-84) and a state senator for two (1987-88), to announce in April that he was running on a joint ticket with James.
About a month later, Browning announced she was running as an independent, and Dufour jumped into the race.
The candidates, in alphabetical order:
A Manchester native, Bongartz was elected to represent his hometown in 1980 and 1982, before the state electoral map was redrawn, leaving after two terms to attend Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland. He returned to politics in 1986, winning election to the state Senate, but left after one term to devote time to his family.
He served as southern Vermont director for the Vermont Natural Resources Council, as an attorney for the law firm of Woolmington, Campbell, Bent, and Stasny, and from 2002 until last year, as president of Hildene. He was the first chair of the Manchester Community Land Trust and has served as president of the Burr and Burton Academy Board of Trustees for 12 years.
“The next couple of years are going to be the hardest since World War II,” Bongartz said during a debate hosted last month by Greater Northshire Access Television. “The job of the legislature is going to be to help people in need to help our small business sector recover, keep our education system afloat and lay the groundwork for a more resilient economy,”
Affordable housing, access to affordable daycare and extending broadband service are among Bongartz’s interests for the coming term if elected. He also wants to focus on agriculture and economic opportunities in farm-to-table food systems.
On education, Bongartz sees the biggest problem facing the state as increasing its student population. “We need to focus on bringing families here, and building an economy that allows them to stay,” he said during the debate.
Bongartz is in favor of the Global Warming Solutions Act, environmental legislation that would mandate emissions targets in the state and hold state government accountable for meeting them.
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“We should listen to young people on this issue. They are scared to death. They know it’s their future and they want action,” he said.
He also supports the concept of mandatory paid family leave — “insurance only works with a large pool,” he said — but believes the details of the plan should be revisited in light of the COVID-19 pandemic’s economic impact.
On health care, Bongartz said he’s “experienced the agony” of working to provide adequate coverage for employees at Hildene, and is coming around to the idea of Medicare for All or a public funding option as the solution.
“The pandemic has exposed the fallacy of employer-based health care,” he said.
In his Aug. 1 campaign finance filing, Bongartz reported donations of $1,150 in July and $4,776 overall.
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Dufour said in an earlier interview she “was encouraged by others who are already holding office” to run for the seat. “They recognized something in me that I had a voice and I would be a good fit,” she said.
Active in the former Manchester and the Mountains Regional Chamber of Commerce, Dufour is the owner of Dufour Design and Bath Tile & Carpet, which was formerly located at 508 Depot St. She is moving the business to a garage at her home on the east side of Manchester.
Over 16 years of business ownership, she has gotten to know a lot of people, and “experienced like them a lot of the problems that are existing right now.” Her primary goal if elected is ” to make those people’s lives more sustainable.”
“I’m looking to do something that needs to be done,” she said. “I’ve done a lot of great things and I think my reputation speaks for itself.”
Dufour describes herself as a fiscally conservative but socially liberal Democrat.
Dufour is interested in addressing the need for affordable workforce housing in the region. She said during the GNAT debate that she is in favor of allowing visiting workers to stay in local motels without charging them the state rooms tax. “I think it’s more of a local level problem … businesses know what they need, they just need to be allowed to do it,” she said.
Dufour believes that the mandatory paid family leave act bill that was vetoed by Gov. Phil Scott needs to be scrapped and simplified to make sure that no one is paying into the system twice for coverage. “When I look at workers comps of $1,000 per person per month [for my business], if I add another bill on top of that they’re not going to take it. I’m going to lose workers,” she said.
On the Global Warming Solutions Act, Dufour is concerned that an appointed Climate Council, which is part of the proposal, “almost sounds like a Nazi organization, where you force people to do things to make businesses close … you have to adhere to guidelines set by an oversight committee no one will be able to stop. It’s going to drive people out.”
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“I’m totally with the idea of going green but you can’t force people to do it,” Dufour said.
Dufour didn’t have specific proposals on health care, but as a general principle wants a system where there is affordable access, and where the prices charged for services are not outrageous. “Let’s not charge $50 for a bag of saline,” she said.
Campaign finance records were not available for Dufour on the Secretary of State’s website.
A Manchester resident since 1996, James said she, like many women across the country, ran for office in 2018 in response to Donald Trump, “not just his policies but also his destructive approach to politics. I don’t like the way Americans talk to each other about politics today, and I don’t like the way social media is used to attack and divide … I wanted to be a different kind of leader.”
Of her first-term accomplishments in the House, James pointed to her work on the House Education Committee, her co-founding of the legislature’s Tourism Caucus and her leadership role on the Climate Solutions Caucus.
She also noted her organizational efforts leading to the formation of the Southern Vermont Communications Union District, which is working to bring broadband service to underserved Bennington County communities.
“I know how to to get things done, I’m ready to build on that, and I think that’s going to matter more than ever,” James said.
During the GNAT debate, James said she was disappointed that the legislature failed to override Scott’s veto of the family leave bill by one vote. “If anything has been discovered during COVID-19 it’s that working Vermonters need a safety net,” she said. She supports a mandatory rather than voluntary approach because making the program mandatory increases the number of participants, helping to keep rates down.
In education, James warned that the weighting inequities discovered in the state’s funding formula “will have significant impacts and some bummer impacts for our communities” that will have to be phased in over time.
While James supports the Global Warming Solutions Act for environmental and public health reasons, she said “it’s also very fundamentally an economic issue.” Noting that 75 cents of every dollar spent on fossil fuel goes out of state, she said, “this is a really good time to think about building clean energy economy and investing in the clean energy sector.”
“It’s a jobs bill and an economic bill and we need to go with the votes and get this thing passed,” she said.
James reported campaign contributions of $1,675 for the August 1 reporting period, and $6,524 total.
Greg Sukiennik covers Vermont government and politics for New England Newspapers Inc. Reach him at email@example.com.
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